“There Was a Void of Good, Long Form Sports Writing:” Questions for Mike Spry of The Barnstormer

mike spry barnstormer

mike spry barnstormerTHE BARNSTORMER is a literary sports journal that was founded in May of 2012 by Andrew Forbes, Bryan Jay Ibeas, Ian Orti, and Mike Spry. It aims to celebrate the intersection of sports and humanity with good writing. It means to be an open, accommodating, inclusive forum for considered, thoughtful, funny and strange writing about sports, written by sports fans, for both sports fans and fans of  good writing.

EMN: How much sports literature has the Barnstormer received? Has the pace increased?

Spry: Originally, when we began the Barn, we decided to include sports poetry and fiction (in addition to essays, columns, and op-eds) just by happenstance, in that we didn’t see any point in discouraging contributions, but didn’t actively seek it out or expect it to be submitted. It found us from time to time, but not too often. For some reason, it has increased a lot the past few months, though I can’t think of any reason for that other than, again, happenstance. We’re happy about it, though, and are pleased that the journal has become a place for literary sports writing, no matter the genre.

EMN: How would you describe the writers who submit sports lit to you? Are there any trends you detect as far as the kind of writers who take on sports as a topic?

Spry: Overweight middle class white Christian males, 18-40, who wear team jerseys and dine exclusively on ballpark nachos.

No. It’s interesting, because many of the people who we’ve published have not been people we may have expected, or readers may expect, in that they’re not sports fans in the traditional sense, but they have shared these marvelous stories and narratives of sport from their lives and imaginations.

EMN: You’ve mentioned before how grateful and surprised you are at how much material the Barnstormer has received, but what’s been most surprising, content-wise, about the sports poetry the Barnstormer’s received?

Spry: I think what has been most surprising is the overall quality of the work we’ve been fortunate enough to publish, not just in terms of the sports poetry but overall. We have been blessed with generous, talented, and supportive contributors.

EMN: To you, what are some of the challenges that come with writing sports poems? How does the successful sports poem avoid those? Are they really any different than any other poem?

Spry: The biggest challenge is making the “sports” aspect of the poems feel genuine and natural, so as to not feel falsely inserted into the text. I think a successful sports poem is one that isn’t about sport at all. Though not published by us, Dave McGimpsey’s “What Was that Poem?” is the perfect example of how to employ sports but not be explicitly about sports.
Spry: Haha. Ya. Parker’s poem came out of nowhere. He had had it for a while, and kept meaning to send it to us, and eventually did and we published it and within an hour it had made its way to Yahoo, NBC, SI.com, and a load of other places. I actually had to spend the next day or two emailing sites that had reprinted it to properly attribute it to the Barn. I think Parker was surprised, too, in that he’s not a poet. Goes to show that poetry is at its best and most accessible when it isn’t over-thought.

metta world peaceEMN: Jeff Parker’s “Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion,” a hilarious poem culled from Metta World Peace quotes, was a viral success. Tell us a bit about that poem, how it managed to spread so wide. Were you surprised by that?

EMN: Your poem “Atrophy and Labor Day Baseball”—which I close read here—supports my developing idea that the sports poem should not look at the sport directly, but must find some other way of addressing, or including, the sport. In this case, the sport provides the context of a strained, or failing, relationship. It is also an extended metaphor for that relationship.  How did this poem come about? I’m curious to know if it was ever slated to be a story, given its narrative base.

Spry: Wow, ya. I guess I hadn’t thought it through that much. But, like I said above about the success of pieces like McGimpsey’s, and as you note, poems are most successful when they aren’t so overt about their purpose or subject. Everything I write, in one way or another, is about strained relationships and flawed characters. This piece allowed me to explore both in a way I hadn’t explored them before, using baseball. And I’m not sure if I had used sports so actively in a poem before. Usually it had been just a passing mention of the Habs. But I liked the idea of this unhappy couple watching baseball like they always do, and baseball is as much part of the routine that defines them (a routine they hate) as sex, as hate, as love, as drink.

As for whether or not it was meant to be a story, I think it is a story, just not in prose. I like to tell stories in poetry. I like to be told stories in poetry. I don’t want to read a poem and think I’m doing math. I want to access poetry, not be lectured by it, or talked down to by it.

In fact, I want all writing tot tell a story. Poetry, prose, op-eds, essays, journalism, financial reports, CVs, cover letters, guidebooks, instructional manuals. Everything written should tell a story. To me, that’s what writing is. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?

EMN: After the above question, I’m now wondering if the direct sports poem works as an ekphrastic poem. I can’t say, though, that I’ve found one that works as well as, say, William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with The Fall of Icarus,” or “The Painting” by John Balaban. Do you think a sports poem can do this? Do you know any good sports poems focused solely on the action of the sport itself?

Spry: I can’t think of an example, but I’m probably not the person to ask. Can a sports poem achieve this? Yes. Do I want to read one that does? Maybe.

[EMN: If any readers can think of one, I’d love for you to leave it in the comments.]

.EMN: How about fiction and essays? Do you think I’m right in saying sports lend themselves to these forms more easily than to poems? Why or why not?

EMN: How about fiction and essays? Do you think I’m right in saying sports lend themselves to these forms more easily than to poems? Why or why not?

Spry: I think it’s harder to write poems about sports than essays or prose, but that’s because a lot of poetry tends to stray from narrative. But I think that’s a product of the industry, of poetry that aspires to be academic and elitist, and not a fault of the medium itself.

EMN: What Barnstormer essays or stories would you recommend the reader to start with? What do you dig about those?

Spry: I love pretty much everything on the site, but as a survey of what we do I’d recommend:

  • “Steubenville” by [Puritan contributor] David Brock. Just a compelling, beautifully written poem about a heartbreaking and impossible subject. Brock has been a big supporter of us, and I’m really looking forward to his collection Everyone is CO2 from by Wolsak & Wynn next year.
  • “We Need to Talk”. This was an extension of the Round Bus roundtable we do weekly, with Stacey May Fowles, Natalie Zina Walschots, Bryan Jay Ibeas, Andrew Forbes, and myself, moderated by Orti, about the culture of rape and misogyny in sports. This was an important dialogue, and indicative of the social responsibility that the Barn believes sport has.
  • “Exposition: Loving Something You Can’t See” by Marty Sartini Garner. “The Montreal Expos taste like cereal.” Enough said.
  • “Cheap Throat: Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player”. This was a daily posting from an anonymous locked-out hockey player we ran during the lockout. It was a viral sensation, with whole forums dedicated to trying to figure out the player’s identity. We’ve published it as an ebook. It’s like Five Easy Pieces meets SlapShot meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s funny shit.
  • Any edition of “The Round Bus”, a weekly roundtable we do with guests from all over the sports and literary realms.

EMN: Despite the fiction and poems, The Barnstormer is mainly devoted to the essay or dialogue form. It is filling a similar gap that Grantland aimed to fill. That site promised to deliver literary-quality sports writing but is instead only half-devoted to that mission (although they definitely publish some great sports essays). How exactly did the Barnstormer come about? Were you aiming for something different than Grantland? And has the mission changed at all?

Spry: The Barn came from, I believe, an online conversation between Bryan Jay Ibeas and Andrew Forbes, and then Forbes brought it up with me, and then Orti, about how there was a void of good, long form sports writing anywhere. Grantland wasn’t living up to what I believed it was supposed to be, and most sports “journalism” had become sycophantic nonsense and rumour-mongering by fanboys. So we threw the thing together, put it online, and it took on a life of its own.

I think the mission has changed slightly, in that we’re a little more open about what we talk about, especially on the Round Bus.

EMN: A year in, how would you assess the Barnstormer? Where do you go from here?

Spry: I think the first year has been successful beyond our expectations. I think Ian and I are more ambitious about year two. What that entails, I’m not sure. It’s a lot of work, and Orti and I have very busy lives. Our main goal is to create revenue streams in order to pay our contributors. That’s above and beyond any other ambition.